by Tom Burch

Cass County Sheriff

With the onset of the boating season and the walleye fishing opener May 9, we have received questions about boating and fishing and how social distancing guidelines and recommendations apply to these hobbies and pastimes that many of us enjoy to spend our time doing, especially during current “Stay At Home Executive Orders.”

Our current COVID-19 situation is forcing everyone to navigate and interpret situations that we have never had to before, including boaters. Many people are wondering if they can go boating, who they can boat with, and where they can go when they leave the dock. In many areas, the water is open; however, it is more important than ever that boaters are responsible to limit unnecessary risk not only to themselves, but to other boaters, law enforcement and first responders.

The Safe Boating Campaign, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Cass County Sheriff’s Office recommend these tips for practicing social distancing and safety while boating. While many of these are standard safety procedures, some new recommendations have been added to follow social distance guidelines that are anticipated to be in place for some time.

1. Follow state and local guidance from public health officials, law enforcement agencies, Department of Natural Resources, park services and others.

2. Stay in your local community or area.

3. Limit the people aboard your boat to people in your immediate household. No guests, no friends, no grandparents – no one that doesn’t live in your house.

4. Make a plan. Make sure a family member or friend knows the details of your trip in the event of an emergency.

5. Everyone should wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket while on the water. You never know when an accident may happen, and a life jacket can help save you until search and rescue assets can arrive.

6. Stay at least six feet away from other people who do not live in your house.

7. Maintain safe distance at landing, marina or while fueling. When launching and loading your boat, give people ahead of you plenty of time and space to finish launching or loading before you approach. Leave early and allow for extra time while launching and loading your boat.

8. Keep in mind water-access site conditions may be different than in previous years. DNR-managed accesses are open, but spring maintenance is not completed.

9. Wash hands frequently or use a hand sanitizer, especially after touching items in common areas.

10. Don’t raft up to other boaters or pull up onto a beach next to someone else, as it could put you in close proximity to others.

11. Go right from your house to the boat and back so that you don’t have unnecessary contact with others.

12. Carry all required boating safety equipment such as flares, navigation light, a horn or whistle and a first aid kit.

13. Pack food, water and other things you may need as restaurants, resorts and marina stores may not be open.

14. Be sure to have a form of communication with you that works when wet. Cell phones are not always reliable in emergency situations.

15. Don’t go boating if someone in your household is sick. If you have been diagnosed with or are exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (including fever, cough, or difficulty breathing), stay home. This self-isolation period should extend for at least seven days after the illness begins and include 72 hours of being fever-free without using fever-reducing medications and resolution of other symptoms.  

16. Don’t drink and boat.

This year we saw normal or even early ice out, which creates early seasonal opportunities for on the water recreation. No matter when the ice went out, there is one common theme: the water this time of year is dangerously cold. Falls into the water can quickly turn tragic. With water temperatures not much above freezing, a fall in will likely trigger cold-water shock. Numbness will set in quickly, and swimming or calling for help will be difficult.

Wearing a life jacket is the easiest and simplest way to protect yourself from a tragedy. The cold-water season isn’t the time to boat alone, either. This year, people should head out only with members of their immediate household and let others on shore know where they are going and when they plan to return. Keep the floor of the boat free of clutter to avoid tripping and falling into the water and check your safety equipment prior to boating.

By planning your trip and carefully following recommendations and guidelines, you can easily and safely engage in recreational activities, including boating and fishing and stay within guidelines and restrictions that have been put into place. Practicing these recommendations now will help ensure your safety and will become common practice even when guidelines are eased and restrictions are lifted.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, contact me anytime: e-mail tom.burch@co.cass.mn.us; call (218) 547-1424  or (800) 450-2677; or mail Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave W, P.O. Box 1119, Walker, MN 56484

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